Thinking About Giving Your Child a Phone?

Whether we like it or not, setting and maintaining reasonable boundaries around technology is now a fundamental part of parenting. If your family is similar to mine, one of your biggest questions may be: When is your child ready for their very own device? Considering how much time a young person may spend on their mobile phone—and the many temptations they will face—makes this a weighty decision for your family.

Easing Into Technology
One of the top reasons that parents give a child a smartphone is “to stay in touch.” If this is the case for your family, there are a variety of age-appropriate devices to allow your child to slowly become comfortable with technology while still being able to reach you.

Lisa Honold, the founder and director of the Center for Online Safety, works with schools to increase digital wellness for students and develop strong parent partnerships for cyber. Rather than giving kids a smartphone, she suggests starting with a device, such as Gabb or Pinwheel, that offers calling and texting. Gabb charges a monthly service fee, while Pinwheel can be added to most existing phone plans. Pinwheel is scalable, with the ability to unlock features and grow with your child. Parents can unlock those features as children are ready.

Evaluating Maturity
Your choice of technology will depend on your child’s maturity, as well as your comfort level with technology. If you’re looking for a way to assess their maturity, PBS Parents has a list of practical questions to ask before giving children their first cell phone.

  • Do your children “need” to be in touch for safety reasons—or social ones?
  • Can they get behind the concept of limits for minutes and apps downloaded?
  • Can they be trusted not to text during class; disturb others with their conversations; and use the text, photo, and video functions responsibly (and not embarrass or harass others)?

Valuing Face-to-Face Communication
Many tech experts, including Bill Gates, limited their own children from having mobile phones until age 14. Joining Gates is James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that reviews products and content for families. His children were not given phones until they were in high school—and only after demonstrating they could exercise restraint and understand “the value of face-to-face communication.”

Monitoring Online Usage
Many popular apps and gaming devices allow messaging between users (even Pinterest now allows private messaging). Although it seems harmless, child predators can use these apps to make contact with children and often look and sound like their peers.

That’s why it’s important to monitor your child’s online activity, especially their chats. There are many services that can help with this, such as Bark, a monitoring platform that gives your child privacy until there is a reason to send the parent an alert. If there’s nothing inappropriate, access will not be limited. “It’s a nice balance of letting kids try things, while giving parents oversight,” says Honold.

Figuring out the fine line between overparenting and reasonable parenting can be daunting. The Center for Online Safety offers free on-demand workshops to figure out what works best for you and your family. Sign up HERE to attend an upcoming live workshop.

Managing Expectations
Setting clear expectations with our kids is one of the most important things we can do to teach them responsible phone usage. By establishing rules—and consequences—you are showing that you trust them, while still holding them accountable. While some families create an actual Mobile-Phone Contract agreed on and signed by parents and child, others use a verbal agreement clearly stating what they expect. Checking in regularly, adjusting expectations if needed, and following through if your child violates the rules that are critical for their safety and well-being, as well as your family dynamic.

Seeking Helpful Resources
Our hope is that technology adds value to your child’s growth with the realization that the best moments in life are lived outside the screen. Here are some helpful resources:

Common Sense Media and Safewise: Offer an array of helpful resources and technology advise. You can also join Facebook groups that are specific to online technology such as Parenting in a Tech World, where experts often answer questions.

The Tech Wizard: Sign up for a FREE 20-minute consultation to answer your toughest questions.

The Family Tech Reset: Ensure your child has a healthy relationship with mobile devices from the start. Simply complete the online registration to receive access to three FREE modules, each 20-25 minutes, to learn how to better prepare your child for the digital world.

Making Sleep a Priority

While cyber experts might not agree on an exact age to give a child a smartphone, they do agree that access to connectivity during the night hours should be limited. They recommend that phones be kept in a family charging station so that children get a full night’s sleep without the interruption or temptation to engage online. Young people need to “disconnect” just like we parents do and limit screen time an hour or two before bed for optimal sleep.